Backyard Wisdom

From where I was sitting, the robin appeared to be asleep. It was an overcast and chilly spring morning, so I had to admit that I was a little envious. Our back yard is divided from the neighboring landlord’s property by a kind of picket fence with square-topped stanchions every ten feet or so. The robin was sleeping on the stanchion closest to an old maple tree. A wiggle of movement caught my eye. Further down the fence, maybe seven or eight pickets back, sat an impatient gray squirrel. It was sitting up on its haunches, and flashing its bushy tail in an obvious attempt to draw attention to itself. The robin sat, implacable. The squirrel looked around like a nervous commuter who will be late for work. It hoped a picket or two closer. Up on its haunches, looked around, jiggled its tail. Still the robin sat. The squirrel turned toward the maple tree and reared back, preparing to jump. It was too far. The squirrel turned back to look at the bird. The robin, flapping its wings a time or two, hopped into the air and landed on a picket two further down beyond the stanchion. The squirrel climbed onto the now vacant spot and leapt into the tree. The robin flew back to its original post.

This little exchange brought home to me once again the intelligence of animals. I don’t know what was going through the minds of these two different species, but they obviously both wanted to be at the same place at the same time. Perhaps some moral imperative passed in unspoken form between them. The squirrel needed to be close enough to make the leap into the tree, and the robin was clearly comfortable where it was sitting. Something had to give. I don’t know if robins peck on squirrels when nobody’s looking, but the rodent, larger than the bird, was obviously cautious. In the end, a compromise was reached and each ended up where they wanted to be.

More than a show of intelligence, I also saw this as a parable. I imagined how differently it might have worked out if the robin were a Christian and the squirrel a Muslim. Would there be any giving way? Any acknowledgement of the need of the other? A few wing flaps, a little leap to the left, and the squirrel found its sanctuary. The robin simply returned to where it was. They both wanted the same sacred space. They didn’t raise voices or argue—the whole exchange was terribly polite. Behavioral biologists often suggest that we can learn much by watching animals. As I watched what must have been only a minor incident in the backyard world of robins and squirrels, I felt as if two of the great teachers of our many religions were enacting a parable for humankind. If only we would pay attention.

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